Shane: The Boy and the Stranger

THERE’S A SCORE TO SETTLE… AND THIS IS IT!

shaneShane was Jack Palance’s breakthrough. Playing a villainous gunslinger, the actor flashed a very creepy smile and became a minor Western icon. His only problem was a lack of experience with horses. He was able to dismount, but getting back up again was much more of a challenge. One scene in the film required him to do that, but it just could not be done in a convincing way. Eventually, director George Stevens simply ran the footage of Palance dismounting in reverse. The scene looks a little awkward today, but still goes to prove that resourcefulness is part of what makes a director great…

A mysterious man called Shane (Alan Ladd) rides into Wyoming Territory and encounters a homesteader, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), who invites him to dinner. He’s introduced to Starrett’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and their young, wide-eyed boy Joey (Brandon de Wilde), who becomes fascinated by the stranger. Shane soon learns of an ongoing conflict between the homesteaders and a cattle baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants all the land for himself. Shane stays with the Starretts for a while, working as a farmhand.

He’s properly introduced to Ryker during two visits in the nearest town; the first has him swallowing insults from one of Ryker’s men, but the second ends with Shane beating the man up, which leads to a big saloon brawl that leaves Ryker and his gang reeling. When the cattle baron employs a notorious gunslinger, Wilson (Palance), the homesteaders have a decision to make – flee, or stay and fight.

Strangely fascinating
The 1862 Homestead Act was simply put the law that gave anyone the right to claim a piece of land. Significant at the time, but it also resulted in what has become known as the Johnson County War of 1892, where a conflict between ranchers, homesteaders and hired killers had to be resolved by the U.S. Cavalry. It became part of Western mythology, not least because of this film. It may look like another adventure on paper, but it becomes strangely fascinating.

On one level, there’s innocence in the way the film shows events from the perspective of a young boy who idolizes the stranger who comes to stay with his family; Joey is trying to understand the adult world and the grim realities of the West. There are lessons he learns from both his father and Shane, and cuteness almost gets the upper hand on a few occasions. Then again, Stevens brings violence into the picture in very dark terms. The fistfights and shootouts are bloody and cruel (this is one of the first films to employ wires that yank actors backwards when their characters are shot), which brings a sense of shock and urgency into the expected confrontations between the warring parties. Cinematographer Loyal Griggs contrasts the violence with breathtaking views of the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Palance is terrific as the gunslinger, but Ladd is worth a look as well in one of his most famous roles; perhaps it is the buckskin that makes him look harmless at first, but he eventually proves why his dark past should be respected, and his final confrontation with Palance is a true slam-down. Arthur doesn’t really have a substantive part, but is still memorable in her final role on screen as the wife who questions if this war is worth all the grief.

Woody Allen and Warren Beatty have talked about what kind of an impact that Shane had on them. In Beatty’s case, the overwhelming sound of gunfire created for the film is something that was allegedly recreated for Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The beauty and shock value of this film are lasting qualities.

Shane 1953-U.S. 118 min. Color. Produced and directed by George Stevens. Screenplay: A.B. Guthrie, Jr.. Novel: Jack Schaefer. Cinematography: Loyal Griggs. Cast: Alan Ladd (Shane), Jean Arthur (Marian Starrett), Van Heflin (Joe Starrett), Jack Palance, Brandon de Wilde, Ben Johnson… Elisha Cook, Jr..

Trivia: Montgomery Clift and William Holden were allegedly first cast as Shane and Joe Starrett. Followed by a TV series, Shane (1966).

Oscar: Best Cinematography.

Last word: “As time went on […] I kept feeling I should do a picture about the war – all the other guys had done or were doing pictures about their war experiences, Ford, Huston, Wyler, and so on. And here I was avoiding the subject. Until I found ‘Shane’ – it was a Western, but it was really my war picture. The cattlemen against the ranchers, the gunfighter, the wide-eyed little boy, it was pretty clear to me what it was about.” (Stevens, “Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film”)

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